Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Responding to Elected King County Councilmember Julia Patterson's Published Tutorial on the Importance of Transit in the Puget Sound Region

by John Niles

Sound Transit Board Vice Chair Julia Patterson wrote an essay in summer 2013 on the importance of public transit that has been widely published in community newspapers distributed in South King County and on the Internet. For example, this essay is available at

When I read this, I spotted a few places where PITF has a different interpretation of what's going on, which I will report on here. 

First of all, Councilmember Patterson notes, "Sound Transit provides regional long distance services throughout King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties..."

But as measured by that agency's entire budget allocations, only a fraction of its work now is long-distance services.

Actually, Sound Transit today is primarily a railroad construction agency that is consuming billions of dollars enabling train service in corridors that did, or could, provide perfectly adequate bus service. Even in its service provision, Sound Transit directly contracts with King County Metro for the drivers and maintenance of its bus routes in the County and its Central Link Light Rail.

The bulk of Central Link Light rail service over the next ten years will be carrying passengers from point to point within a few miles of downtown Seattle. In the present era we cannot yet call this billions of dollars in light rail investment by Sound Transit followed by hundreds of millions in annual operating expenses a "regional long distance service."

The taxpayers have indeed voted for regional trains as of November 2008. Decades from now, and after additional billions of dollars are consumed, there may be a regional light rail system that reaches deep into all parts of the three county region. However, Puget Sound Regional Council is forecasting that this future network of trains will carry only half the people in 2040 that Sound Transit predicts will be carried on trains in 2030.

But that's a prediction that can't be validated until many years have passed.

For now, I think it's important to describe accurately what is going on for the next few years.

South King County is now planned very soon to be one of the first places in the world where new express bus service (RapidRide A) runs along side new parallel light rail service (Central Link), when the Angle Lake light rail station opens in 2016. More likely, and hopefully for cost saving, the plan will change so that RapidRide A is truncated to have Angle Lake as a terminus where everybody going north makes the switch from bus to train, or vice versa going south.

In the meantime, King County Metro is screaming it's so broke it needs millions of new tax dollars to avoid cutting 600,000 hours of service while Sound Transit is spending billions to build trains along bus routes from the same taxpayer wallet.

Given Sound Transit's vast treasury and Metro's now recovering tax revenues, I'm in favor of holding the line on more King County Metro taxes as a signal to squeeze more efficiency from the entire, sprawling Puget Sound regional transit apparatus.

The region's multi-agency system of back-scratching and self-congratulation has been tagged for overhaul twice in recent memory, by The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) appointed by Governor Gregoire in 2006, and earlier by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation appointed by Governor Locke in 1999.

Final note -- I want to comment on the claim that "transit reduces traffic congestion."

No serious transportation research has ever found that transit reduces traffic congestion in regions or corridors where cars are accommodated at the same time. Metro's "congestion reduction charge" on the license tab tax the King County Council authorized is an abuse of English language meaning.

Various Sound Transit leaders serving along side Board Vice Chair Patterson have explicitly stated that Sound Transit does not reduce traffic congestion. For example the Coalition for Effective Transporation Alternatives quotes the agency's CEO on this point at the top of its website

What public transit urban rail will do in the best case is let a commuter trade in a congested trip in a car while sitting down for a shorter, crowded train ride standing up.

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Last modified: September 27, 2013

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